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Understanding Islam, Research Paper Example

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Research Paper

Islam is thefastest growing religion in the world (Foreign Policy, 2007) and it is estimated that a little more than a quarter of the world’s population or about 26.4 percent will be Muslim by 2030. At the same time, U.S. Muslim population is also expected to double to 6.2 million by 2030 (Jones, 2011). Despite the fact that Islam is a growing religious force in both America and the world, the religion enjoys widespread negative perceptions in America which could also be attributed to the tragic event of 9/11, the growth of terrorist groups and organizations such as Al-Qaeda and Hamas, as well as U.S. active global military engagements which often involve Muslim countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Being an American, I am also exposed to negative views about Islam and Muslims during conversations with friends and acquaintances as well as in the media. Thus, it will not be a surprise if I may also have stereotypes and misunderstandings about Islam like many other Americans who do not practice Islam or have practicing Muslims as friends. The negative perceptions about Islam in America can be judged by the fact that a TIME- Abt SRBI poll found that 46% of Americans consider Islam to be more likely than other faiths to encourage violence against non-believers(Ghosh, 2010). This is why I decided to visit Islamic Society of Baltimore(Islamic Society of Baltimore) to better understand Islam and seek questions to my answers. The center’s General Secretary, Abid Husain introduced me to Ali Abdullah, a regular visitor to the center and a past member of the center’s governing Council.

I was aware of the fact that the foundation of Islam rests on five pillars which are collectively known as kalima, prayer, fast, charity, and pilgrimage. With the exception of charity, I found little value in other five pillars so I asked Ali to explain the significance of all five pillars. Ali responded that these five pillars ensure that Muslims maintain a proper balance between their duties towards Allah as well as the society and their worldly life. For example, prayer ensures that a Muslim remembers his god every day which also increases the probability of staying away from sin. Prayer reminds a Muslim that his god is watching him and this life is temporary. Similarly, charity is intended to help less well-off members of the society and ensures fairer distribution of wealth. Ali reminded me that charity is kind of a tax on wealth which is not much different from what we call ‘progressive tax’ in modern world. Similarly, fasting helps Muslims experience hunger and thirst and remindthem of the blessings of the god as well as the lives of less fortunate. Ali concluded his explanation by claiming that Islam is a practical religion that seeks balance between worldly life and the life hereafter.

My second touched an issue personally important to me as I believe in gender equality. I asked Ali why Islam views women as inferior to men and impose requirements such as covering head and face that limit women freedom. Ali replied that covering face is not a requirement in Islam but Islam does recommend covering head which we also call ‘hijab’. Ali claimed that hijab is not a sign of suppression but a sign of modesty. Ali asked why Christian nuns and Orthodox Jewish women are praised for their modesty even though they also cover their heads while Muslim women are considered suppressed. Ali also claimed that most women cover their head by choice and not because they are forced to because they like the reasons behind religious recommendation. He added that many Americans may not know this but in Muslim countries, women in hijab are almost never teased by the guys while the situation is entirely different for women in western dresses.

I also mentioned the fact that Islam is more likely to encourage violence due to the concepts of ‘Jihad’ and Muslims are usually considered intolerant. Ali explained that the situation is not as simple or black and white as the media usually portrays or most Americans think. He added that one has to consider several issues to better understand the problem. First of all, there are more than one billion Muslims and the actions of few thousand fundamentalists cannot represent the views of over one billion Muslims just as KKK cannot represent the views of over one billion Christians. Ali also claimed that the concept of ‘Jihad’ has been twisted by fundamentalists to suit their own political ambitions. Jihad requires Muslims to help their brothers and sisters when they are in trouble. Moreover, war etiquette in Islam prohibits targeting innocent children, women, and those who are not active participants in military conflict. Thus, suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks on innocent civilians violate the very principles of Jihad and war etiquette in Islam. Ali also reminded me that one cannot underestimate the influence of media in shaping public’s perceptions of religions and gave my example to support his argument. Ali claimed that media in Muslim countries often show destruction from war in Afghanistan and Iraq, thus, media coverage leads to negative perceptions of the west and helps fundamentalists recruit young people.

I also drew attention to the fact that Islam is usually perceived as more intolerant as compared to many other faiths. Ali responded that such perceptions are misplaced because Islam even allows a marriage between a Muslim man and a Christian or Jewish woman since all three are Abrahamic faiths. Ali also said that Muslims believe in many of the same things as Christians and Jews. For example, Muslims believe that Moses was a man of god, Jesus was born of a virgin Mary, Jesus used to walk on the water, and Jesus could heal the sick as well as bring back people from death. When I asked that Christians are required to follow Islamic laws in Muslim countries, Ali argued that those laws are state laws though they may be inspired by religious teachings but one should view them as state laws and not religious laws. Ali claimed that even laws in U.S. may have drawn their inspiration from a religion such as Christianity but that would not excuse a Muslim from obeying a particularstate or federal law.

In responding to my inquiry about polygamy, Ali claimed that Islam does allow up to four wives at a time but it is not recommended. Islam requires a husband to treat all four wives equally in terms of giving time and meeting financial needs but if a husband cannot do that, he should not have multiple wives. Ali claimed that modern society may view polygamy in a negative light but one should view polygamy in historical context and the rationale behind it. Ali explained that polygamy was originally allowed due to the uneven ratio of men and women in Arabia. A significant number of men would die in military conflicts and unlike modern times, women didn’t use to participate in wars. Thus, the only way to ensure that all women could get married was allowing multiple wives otherwise many women would never have found husbands. But even then Islam has advised husbands to be sure they can fulfill the obligations of a husband. Unfortunately, this practice is misused by some now but one can only understand the rationale behind polygamy by viewing it in historical context. Ali also expressed surprise over negative perceptions of polygamy in the western countries where men often have extramarital affairs and do not really practice monogamy in real sense of the word.

I told Ali that Islam claims to share so much with Christianity and Judaism yet many of the global conflicts often pit followers of these three religions against each other. If Islam really confirms the teachings of Christianity and Judaism, why the followers of these religions are not as much on friendly terms with each otheras similarities would suggest. Ali claimed that similarities cannot guarantee peaceful co-existence but respect and the willingness to understand each other can. Ali reminded me of the conflicts within these religions such as between Protestants and Catholics in Christianity or Sunni and Shia in Islam. Ali claimed that different groups often start considering them the most righteous and expect others to believe in their versions. This is how intolerant attitudes lead to conflicts despite overwhelming similarities because the stakeholders are more focused on the differences than the similarities.

I also asked Ali about the logic of requiring Muslims to read Quran in Arabic even though a significant proportion of Muslims don’t speak Arabic. I also argued that it would be easier to read Quran in own language because one would understand what he/she is reading. Ali claimed that Muslims are recommended to read Quran with translation so that they understand what they are reading. Ali claimed that preserving Quran in Arabic language had yielded several benefits as compared to other holy books including Bible which Muslims believe was revealed to Jesus from Allah but later changed by Christians. Ali argued that not a single letter has changed in Quran even after fourteen hundred years and that may also have to do with preserving Quran in original language. Three people may be asked to translate a book in Arabic and they may come with quite similar but not exact translations. This is because many words often have same meaning in a particular language and at the same time, a single word may have different meanings. Requiring the Muslims to preserve Quran in Arabic language has made it possible to pass Quran unchanged from one generation to other unlike Bible which has been significantly changed over time, either intentionally or unintentionally.

My conversation with Ali has not only improved my understanding of Islam but has also given me several insights as to why there are often misconceptions and stereotypes and how one can improve his/her understanding of other religions. Many of my negative views about Islam are not at least neutral because I have come to understand that I rarely considered the cultural, political, and historical factors that have shaped the religion and its followers. I also underestimated the influence of media in shaping my perceptions and didn’t seek to educate myself through other information sources.

Misconceptions about religions spread when people are only exposed to one side of the picture and do not realize that every story has at least two sides. This is why there are misconceptions about Islam in the west and about west in Muslim countries because most people are shaping their perceptions on the basis of content being fed to them by the media. Misconceptions also arise due to lack of interaction among followers of different religions. When people interact with those from other faith, they can ask questions and others have the opportunity to address misconceptions as my meeting with Ali demonstrates.

There are several strategies one can adopt to improve his/her understanding of other faiths. One strategy is to educate oneself either through personal interaction or accessing information through a wide variety of sources. Second strategy may be to visit other countries and spend some time there so that one can see the religion in a native environment. This experience would help one put himself/herself in the shoes of locals and understand the assumptions or traditions that drive their religious practices.

References

Foreign Policy. (2007, May 14). The List: The World’s Fastest-Growing Religions. Retrieved November 11, 2012, from http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2007/05/13/the_list_the_worlds_fastest_growing_religions

Ghosh, B. (2010, August 30). Islamophobia: Does America Have a Muslim Problem? Retrieved November 11, 2012, from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2011936-2,00.html

Islamic Society of Baltimore. (n.d.). Welcome. Retrieved November 11, 2012, from http://www.isb.org/default.aspx

Jones, H. (2011, January 27). 2.2 Billion: World’s Muslim Population Doubles. Retrieved November 11, 2012, from http://newsfeed.time.com/2011/01/27/2-2-billion-worlds-muslim-population-doubles/

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